Expectant moms have plenty to ponder. In addition to names and nursery details, there are fears about giving birth. A generation ago, most moms dealt with their concerns by taking a series of childbirth classes, but fewer and fewer women are signing up these days. In fact, a 2009 Parents survey found that just 53 percent of new mothers had attended a childbirth course, down from 70 percent in 2002, according to research conducted for the Maternity Center Association.
What gives? For one thing, women are busier now, says Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth From the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank. "In the past, women weren't working as much. Now we're juggling jobs, pregnancy, and other demands." Plus, the Internet makes it easy for women to get info they think they need. But a few hours spent online won't necessarily arm you with the same knowledge and reassurance that an in-person class can provide, even if you're pregnant with baby #2. Moreover, there have never been quite so many options as there are no, both in terms of course focus and the time you have to commit. Read on to get a quick look at what's out there.
The syllabus: Developed by a French obstetrician in the early 1950s, this method originally focused on using relaxation and breathing techniques to avoid the need for delivery drugs. In the 1960s, Elisabeth Bing and Marjorie Karmel formed what is now Lamaze International to educate couples about birth and to empower them to refuse medical interventions.
Today the course has become less rigid in its natural-birth stance: While classes still offer advice aimed at helping women avoid interventions, such as changing positions to endure contractions and being patient enough to let labor progress on its own, the main focus is on informing a couple about the process of birth. And, yes, they still teach a few breathing techniques to keep moms feeling calm and in control.
* Typically six sessions with a partner
I tried it "Before taking Lamaze, I was planning on having my baby with an epidural. But I wanted to see if I could handle the pain. I was induced after going two weeks past my due date; during the contractions I sat on a yoga ball, a technique we learned in the class. It worked wonders, and I ended up not needing an epidural," Maria Acors; Richmond, Virginia
The syllabus: Popularized by the 1965 book Husband-Coached Childbirth, by Robert A. Bradley, M.D., this method hasn't changed much since. The course encourages women to attempt a natural birth (no medications or surgery), treating it as an event that they must prep for intensely with a partner (typically their husband) as their coach. Proponents praise the classes for their comprehensive coverage of pregnancy, labor, and birth, as well as postpartum care for mom and baby.
Because this method aims to prepare women for a med-free labor, a major class focus is how to relax in order to manage pain, says certified instructor and doula Barbara Cremeans, of Yardley, Pennsylvania. "We teach a woman's partner to coach her into a calm state," she explains. Couples practice a range of physical, mental, and emotional relaxation exercises so they'll have many to choose from during labor.
* Twelve sessions with your partner
I tried it "The instructors of my Bradley course were also doulas, and I ended up hiring two of them to be my coaches. I felt like they were my drugs; they kept me so relaxed during labor. I don't know that a birth without pain medication would have been possible for me without them, and what I learned in class." Cara Marcano; Princeton, New Jersey
The syllabus: While hypnosis during childbirth has been practiced throughout history, Marie Mongan, a hypnotherapist from Chichester, New Hampshire, founded HypnoBirthing in 1989. Similar methods, such as Hypnobabies, are also available. These classes teach women to hypnotize themselves in order to downplay their anxieties and fears, which can create tension and lead to pain. "A lot has to do with trusting your instincts and working with your body," says Kathy Woo, a HypnoBirthing instructor in Oakland, California. Attendees learn to achieve a state of deep relaxation through techniques like breathing slowly or meditating while listening to guided self-hypnosis recordings.
* Typically four or five multiple-hour sessions with you and your partner
I tried it "I took a HypnoBirthing class after a friend told me how much the method helped her during labor. To manage my contractions, I visualized happy, relaxing images we learned to focus on in class, and I stayed calm and didn?t need pain relief. The nurses remarked on how serene I was compared with other laboring mothers." Jeanne Gregor; Riverdale, Maryland
The syllabus: Many hospitals and birthing centers now offer their own courses (often called "Childbirth Basics" or something similar) intended to educate first-time parents about the labor experience. Focus can vary from pain-management techniques to timing contractions and hospital protocols. (Tours of the facility are sometimes offered too; if you're hoping for one, call ahead to make sure it's included in your session of choice.) These courses are more popular with couples who are open to standard medical interventions, such as the use of Pitocin to induce labor or an epidural to numb pain.
* Varies, some classes meet a handful of times over a few weeks, while others are offered as a one-time extended weekend session
I tried it "I took a course at the hospital where I gave birth. The nurse who taught the class was actually the nursery nurse while I was there. I was most scared about the epidural, but an anesthesiologist from the hospital came to field questions. He was candid and informative and even brought an 'epi kit' to show us how it all works. Being able to talk face-to-face really eased my anxiety." Barbara Arnold; Jackson, Mississippi
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Parents magazine.